At Storyhouse, we always encourage our clients and the general public to digitize all of their family memories and important documents before it’s too late. We know, of course, it isn’t always possible to accomplish this before a catastrophic event like the recent barrage of storms in Central Texas. If you experienced any flooding in your home, office or storage unit, the good news is that you can follow certain protocol to salvage some (if not most) of your precious heirlooms, but you should take action as soon as possible before mold begins to develop and items start to adhere to each other.
Here is a quick rundown of steps you (and any volunteers assisting you) can take to minimize long-term damage to paper heirlooms and electronics which might house priceless information. Special thanks to the folks at UT Austin’s iSchool for providing us with special training and materials which helped us distill a plan for our audience to take action with their own items.
GUIDELINES FOR DIY SALVAGE
First thing’s first. If you are in the midst of recovery mode, which is undoubtedly a stressful and trying time, take a deep breath and step back so that you can make a realistic assessment of your surroundings and what is in front. Then, you can prioritize and develop a plan of action. Know that there will likely be items that you will not be able to recover and remember that rushing may cause you to damage fragile items.
Your safety is most important. Assess the surroundings of the area in which you plan to work. Check for rotting wood, electrical hazards, etc. Do not work in an unsafe environment. At the end of the day YOU are more important than even the most precious possession.
Wear nitrile or latex gloves when working with flood-damaged materials to protect yourself from potentially hazardous contaminants from the water. When possible, also wear long sleeves, pants, waterproof shoes and N95 respirators. Bonus if you’re able to bring along paper towels, wax paper, clean dishcloths or any other absorbent material to aid in the drying process. Also, twine, tacks and clothespins can be helpful.
- Look around, assess the situation, determine which items are of utmost priority (i.e. can’t be replaced and no other copy exists) and make a plan. Make sure not to overwork yourselves. This work can be exhausting and emotional. It’s important to know your limits and take breaks as often as possible. Also remember to drink plenty of water and eat throughout the day.
Clear a dry work area and/or hang a clothing line so that you can start to lay out items to dry.
Salvaging paper heirloom articles like photos, receipts, documents, artwork etc.
If you are dealing with a pile of wet items, always start by carefully removing items on top and work your way down.
Immediately remove all artwork, photos and documents from any enclosures like albums or frames to prevent the items from sticking.
If you are unable to deal with the drying process at the moment, carefully place all items into a plastic bag and then directly into a frost-free freezer. If possible separate some of the most important items using layers of wax paper. These items will hold up in a frozen state, buying you several weeks or even months of time so you can deal with them when you are ready. Remember though, this is just a means for prolonging the process so your items will not dry and stick together or grow mold. Once you’re ready to proceed, place your items in a cooler inside an air-conditioned space and allow them to slowly thaw over the course of ~2 days, then proceed with the following steps. REMEMBER: do not freeze glass!
On a long table, lay out cloth, pillowcases, paper towels, any dry layers you can find to create a barrier between your dry surface and the wet items so they will not dry and stick to the dry surface. If you are limited on space, you can also preemptively crinkle up paper and lay photos and more sturdy items against it in a triangular shape (see sample image).
Carefully separate photographs and documents using both hands and trying to keep the item stable. Then, if possible, tilt item to remove pools of water and then lay them flat (or in a triangular shape) on your absorbent surface. Make sure nothing is overlapping or the items will stick together as they dry.
- If you don not have time to separate individual paper stacks, dry them in stacks no more than ¼” high. Photos should always be laid out in single layers.
- If preserving especially old photographs or artwork, consider placing wax paper on top of the item and weighting down just the edges with glass (jars, bottles, etc.) or any small heavy item so they will dry a little more flat.
- If using a clothesline method, hang only sturdy items only on the line. Hanging drenched papers might result in more damage to the item.
If you have any items that appear as though they are unsalvageable (i.e. they would fall apart if you tried to pick them up), take several photos of the document before attempting to pick it up.
Try to keep the air moving and reduce humidity in the room where these items are drying to avoid mold growth. Consider using a dehumidifier and fans, but make sure the air circulation is gentle - avoid directly pointing fans at wet materials. Dry for 48 - 72hrs, if possible.
Once your items are dry and out of danger, you can remove any mold that might have formed with a soot sponge. Cut the sponge into small squares and use slow circular motions to remove mold. Remember to wear masks, gloves and long sleeves before attempting this.
For damaged items you hold especially dear, consider contacting a local photo/document restoration expert or conservator, but note these services can be costly.
Salvaging books and magazines
The process for salvaging books and magazines is similar to that of photos and documents with these exceptions.
Carefully wring out any excess water from the book/magazine.
Both can be placed in a freezer to prolong the process, but try to place wax paper every 10-20 pages to increase efficacy during the drying process.
For books, stand them at a 90° angle to stabilize and dry. Once they are mostly dry (aprox. 48-72 hours), you can close them and add weights on top of them so they will start to flatten.
For magazines, know that the pages are extremely likely to stick together, so try and separate each page with wax paper if you wish to salvage the entire publication.
Salvaging electronics which house vital information
If a cell phone, computer or any electronic item that has a storage component (i.e. hard drive) has suffered water damage, immediately turn off the device. If the device was already off, DO NOT turn it on to see if it works. Your best chance of salvaging the item is to ensure it stays in the OFF position.
If the item was fully submerged and especially if it was submerged in flood water, your best bet is to first remove the battery (if possible) and re-suberge the device in DISTILLED water which you can get from most any grocery or drug store. This will help remove any sediment from hard or flood water and increase your chances of saving the item or at least the hard drive component.
If you do not have access to distilled water and the item is mucky or has been submerged in flood water, consider rinsing it with clean water of any sort.
Then, place the item in a bowl of dry rice for at least 48 hours to dry completely.
Finally, you can try turning on the device, but do not panic if it does not work. Contact a local, reliable computer repair shop to get a quote for assessing your device and removing the hard drive or storage component to retrieve the data on it.
Note: None of these processes are fail-proof. They are designed to help you stabilize your most valuable paper and electronic documents.
OTHER VALUABLE RESOURCES
The UT-Austin iSchool has compiled and incredible “Quick Tips Guide” and a comprehensive list of reputable in-depth resources to help you navigate through your personal salvage. Click HERE to read their post and to stay informed. Also, for advice, call them at 512-903-9564.
Also, the American Institute for Conservation - Collections Emergency Response Team (AIC-CERT) has a volunteer-driven hotline set up to respond to the needs of cultural institutions during emergencies and disasters. They provide advice and referrals by phone if you call this phone number: 202-661-8068
IF YOU NEED OUR HELP...
Storyhouse may be able to get a volunteer to your Central Texas location to help you begin the salvage process. We also employ trained archivist teams who can help you with the first phase of salvage and follow-up resources for an hourly rate. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org for a complimentary consultation.